This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
After two very good episodes, Game of Thrones season five has finally found its stride, because “High Sparrow” was a nigh perfect hour. Paced with conviction and moving with ease, each sequence stopped expositing this week and started delivering the goods…and severed heads.
The fact that we’re no longer getting acclimated to a new status quo became abundantly clear when the game dramatically changed once more in a moment: Margaery Tyrell is now Margaery Baratheon, and for once a Westerosi wedding went off without a hitch. It’s intriguing that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss did not even bother to tease the prospect of humiliation or death at dinner since we jumped straight to the wedding night, and King Tommen, First of His Name, enjoying the perks of the crown that his older brother ignored.
These sequences between Tommen and Margaery (and her new “mother”) are terrific because they allow Natalie Dormer to find herself in a familiar situation to the Tyrell Queen’s Showtime sister, Anne Boleyn. Not even seconds after Tommen confesses that “it all happened so fast,” Margaery is turning the screws in her young king’s head. And since he is living many of a teenage viewer’s dream at the moment, he doesn’t even notice as he is bent into whatever shape suits his new wife.
And yet, I do think Margaery is genuinely pleased with her young husband. Age difference aside, and the uncomfortable fact that she patronizes him like a younger brother, she really does mean it when she says, “I think we’re going to be very happy, you and I.” After the nastiness she almost called a husband in Tommen’s older brother, who she would have been forced to “enthusiastically” slaughter whole bunny families alongside with their matching crossbows, the fact that she has a sweet king who just wants to sail with her and eats cake makes her exceedingly happy. How could it not when he is so sweet that he believes her when she agrees that the words “Queen Margaery” sound strange?
And as the queen’s first royal action, she starts manipulating her naïve brother-husband into sending Cersei away to Casterly Rock. This development, which is not in A Feast for Crows, is an inspired addition. Indeed, it gives Margaery some agency in her courtier war with Cersei. Whereas in the novels, we only see it from Cersei’s perspective, Margaery proves to offer a more deft hand at manipulation than her blunt-as-a-warhammer mother-in-law.
However, Margaery should be careful not to move so soon after Cersei. While she displays more tact than the publicly vain, selfish, and incredibly entitled Lannister Queen, she still does not yet have a son by Tommen to cement her position, nor has Cersei’s powers even momentarily waned. Aye, with Tywin dead, Tyrion in hiding, and Kevan Lannister (Tywin’s younger brother) seeing her for the terrible faux-Hand of the King that she has positioned herself to be, Cersei has never been more powerful—and Margaery is playing with fire. But it burns so well when she tells Cersei, “Can we bring you anything to eat or drink? I wish we had some wine for you, but it’s a bit early in the day for us.”
That kind of scorched ground left Cersei seething…and finding religion in her own odd way. Yep, it seems that the new Septon of Baelor is every bit the pervert that all other men in King’s Landing tends to be since he is caught by Sparrows visiting Littlefinger’s brothel for some undoubted soul-searching (and the episode’s requisite nudity). As a result, the Septon is forced to make a walk of shame in the nude before being further insulted by a Queen Regent who likely despises that locale and the frequency with which her late husband attended it. Throwing the High Septon in a Black Cell, Cersei finds the leader of the Sparrows in his barefoot piety feeding the poor, providing a wonderfully false humility entrance for the invaluable Jonathan Pryce.
Pryce is one of those great character actors that has been in everything from Shakespeare to Bond, to Pirates of the Caribbean. Also, amusingly, he is currently in BBC/PBS’s Wolf Hall where he plays one of the most famous corrupt and self-serving clergymen in history, Cardinal Wosley. But this High Sparrow he is all humble modesty and friendly smiles.
The Sparrows, who we witnessed in the first episode of the year with Lancel Lannister’s conversion, are a special kind of self-righteousness. These deeply religious men celebrate poverty like the Franciscan monks of old that also attempted to be closer to God by walking barefoot and accepting destitution. However, like St. Francis himself, and many other religious leaders throughout history, there is something quite fanatical about the High Sparrow. His mouth smiles and makes pleasantries, but his eyes judge. After all, he is the leader of a group that punished the Westerosi equivalent of the Pope by stripping him nude in the streets.
In fact, my small grievance of book changes that actually bothered me from these first three episodes is that Cersei has so much power over the High Sparrow and his flock. In the book, much like history, the self-anointed conduits for the gods lived beyond the secular world of kings. The High Sparrow took power by overtaking a conclave in the Great Sept of Baelor to appoint a replacement for the previous High Septon (the portly gentleman who was disemboweled in season two). That Cersei can essentially remove one Pope and put another in his place blurs the line of power between religion and monarchy in King’s Landing.
Still, at least Cersei is making new friends.
The same could also be said of Petyr Baelish and Sansa Stark. Indeed, this episode confirmed the major departure from the novels that we all had long suspected: Sansa Stark is betrothed to marry Ramsay Bolton. From Joffrey to Ramsay? Sansa sure knows how to pick ‘em!
It is a bold move by Littlefinger, but a cunning one. While Brienne and Podrick’s decision to continue trailing Sansa was a wise one, as this position is nothing but dangerous for the eldest Stark girl, I actually think there is brilliance to Baelish’s madness. Obviously, there is a Littlefinger is performing his classic double-speak when he tells Sansa of revenge, convincing her to jump back on to her horse and ride for the childhood home—a place she so longed for all those tears ago in a snowy garden in the Eyrie. But watching Littlefinger manipulate is like witnessing a bird take flight—neither fact of life necessarily proves or disproves any sort of truth.
The fact is with a Stark back in Winterfell, Littlefinger is uniting the North around which ever way the wind blows for Sansa. If Stannis wins in his inevitable campaign south, Sansa will gladly side with him over the family that betrayed and murdered her brother and mother (as will the North whose families all lost sons and fathers, and brothers at the Red Wedding). If Stannis fails and is defeated, Sansa is still situated with the winning side next to Ramsay, who the North hates as much. Recall that with her first step back into her childhood bedroom at Winterfell, a servant offers the chilly words that “the North remembers.”
Littlefinger meanwhile has the Vale for now, but it will always be contentious since he married into it and has few friends there when Lord Robin comes of age. Conversely, whoever Sansa ultimately sides with in the war to come will have the North’s support, and she will have (presumably on Littlefinger’s part) a great deal of gratitude for Lord Baelish, who helped restore Lady Stark to her birthright. As a result, he is likely carving out a permanent piece of castle and title out of the North to accompany or replace the Vale for when Robin decides he doesn’t like his half-a-month stepfather. In the meantime, Littlefinger will have vengeance of his own, because whatever else he has done, he still loves Catelyn Stark to creepy effect. Ever the sentimentalist, Littlefinger too should want to see the Boltons pay.
Beyond the politics, we also now finally have a Stark returned to Winterfell. After reading hundreds of pages about the agonized longing felt by both Stark daughters for this paradise lost, and watching it too on the show as Arya came so close to her mother at the Twins, and Sansa clutched even tighter to her father’s doll on the night Tyrion lit the Blackwater on fire, for at least one of them to return home is a quiet relief.
How perfectly Game of Thrones though that it is undercut by Ramsay Bolton staring at his bride-to-be like a mangy mutt that just discovered a new rawhide bone.
It certainly makes Brienne’s presence also welcome. In fact, she might have the monologue of the night as she finally recounts for Podrick and viewers the story of why she loved Renly Baratheon so dearly. The story of Brienne the Beauty highlights again why on the series that Renly might have been the best king for Westeros (as opposed to the callow boy in the books). In addition to more willingly making an alliance with Robb Stark prior to his murder in the series, the genesis of Brienne’s infatuation makes him seem all the bigger man in a world filled with small-minded monsters. It also explains why Brienne still carries a torch for Stannis—all the easier to light him on fire.
Speaking of Stannis, the best sequences of the night took place again at the Wall, and once more Jon Snow enjoys his new spotlight in Game of Thrones’ center stage. After the first season, due to time limitations or budget constraints while shooting in Iceland, Jon Snow mostly took a backseat until the Battle of the Wall in last year’s penultimate episode. However, after giving Mance peace in the season five premiere, and becoming Lord Commander in last week’s hour, Jon Snow again takes the best moment for himself as he wields his new power over the necks of his enemies—Ned undoubtedly would be proud.
Jon’s plot begins by telling Stannis where he can put that “Jon Stark” pardon—albeit he might feel differently after he finds out who Ramsay Bolton is marrying. Nevertheless, Jon ultimately appears to be making a sound decision this week, though mostly thanks to Sam Tarly. If he had not gotten the title of Lord Commander, choosing to be Ser Alliser’s ditch digger over Jon Stark would have been almost as dumb as Ned telling Cersei he knows the truth. But as Lord Commander, Jon has a lot more freedom than he ever would under Stannis as he prepares both the Night’s Watch and the Wildings for thewar to come.
Stannis even begrudgingly respects Jon Snow’s choice in his typically circumspect way. I would go so far as to say that Jon Snow is bringing the best out of Stannis this season. Finally playing off someone that isn’t manipulating him like Melisandre or in turn is afraid of the Red Witch, like Davos, Stannis is showing some of that grim charm and brittle righteousness that has earned him so many fans in the book. Watching Stannis and Davos stare down Lord Commander Snow in his new quarters is something like a crossover film. Except unlike The Avengers, these characters actually have had hours of real development making their simplest interactions and vocal intonations fascinating to behold. For proof, look no further to when Stannis gives the biggest thumbs up after Jon Snow handles political dissidence like any Stark would by removing Lord Janos Slynt from his head.
Slynt has been a nasty customer since season one when he betrayed Eddard Stark, a fact that Janos should have recalled when rubbing his King’s Landing roots in Lord Commander Snow’s face. Jon also took some of Stannis’ advice to heart after the sole actual Baratheon monarch gave another gem of a line tonight—“Whoever said that didn’t have many enemies”—by getting rid of his most public foes in the Night’s Watch. He did not totally heed Stannis’ suggestion of placing Ser Alliser Thorne at Eastwatch by the Sea, which is a genuinely prestigious position, but he did give him a place of even higher honor as First Ranger. That means Alliser will still be around to give Jon trouble in the future, but he won’t be there everyday to stir up malcontent. Further, he also appeases Ser Alliser’s ego with the honor, making it far easier to remove Alliser’s sycophantic and useless sidekick.
Jon would send Janos Slynt to carry out his days renovating a stony ruin. It is a cold, brutal task, but not so hellacious as losing his head. But when Janos not only disobeys his Lord Commander but also calls Jon a bastard, his fate is sealed. For the first time in his life, Jon Snow has the ability to take the head of a high-born shyte that calls him bastard, and he doesn’t squander the opportunity.
Director Mark Mylod films the execution scene with cinematic finesse and the ratcheting tension of a blockbuster’s climax, complete with tracking shots of Jon Snow’s shadow taking a drink before the decapitation. Janos Slynt dies as he lived his life: as a coward. And there is no room for cowards on the Wall.
The sequence is a beauty, because it compliments similar moments for Ned and Robb Stark so well. In the series premiere, we saw Ned Stark land Ice—a wondrous sword that Tywin Lannister blasphemed—on the head of a Night’s Watch traitor. And of course, Robb Stark memorably took Karstark’s head in season three. Hell, there is even further proof about Theon Greyjoy’s lack of Starkness from season two when he pathetically could not behead a man until the fourth blow (and a kick!) during an execution. Jon, by comparison, beheads with the grace of his father and brother. But unlike Robb at least, killing Slynt does not feel like a mistake.
Robb Stark in fantasy would be the most expected hero since he is the boy king on a noble quest to avenge his father’s death at the hands of a tyrant. But he made one poor decision after another following his capture of the Kingslayer, and the execution of Karstark was just one more misstep in a long line that ended at the Red Wedding. Jon Snow perhaps is announcing himself as the true Stark heir that will bring justice and heroism to Game of Thrones since his first public beheading ends with Stannis all but high-fiving the lad. We agree.
Yet, as Jon is swinging one sword like a true Stark, the sword that connects him to his long lost little sister stood on the precipice of oblivion this evening.
Arya Stark is now officially on the road to becoming a Faceless Man (or woman). This has some perks, such as a nice episode-opening showcase of brilliant set design for the interior of the House of Black and White, complete with an oily pool of poison that looks all too seductive for suicidal visitors. Arya also is allowed to have her first bath and change of clothes in what feels like several years.
Unfortunately, downsides also abound since they insist that to join them, Arya must forego the name of “Arya Stark,” which includes throwing away her rags…and Needle. This is a blade that is Arya’s last connection to those blissful days at Winterfell. A gift from Jon Snow, it’s her last connection from a childhood shattered, and a time when Ned, Catelyn, and Robb were all alive, and the only pain that Arya ever knew was when she was forced to do needlepoint with Sansa.
The loss of Needle to the water would not just be giving up a blade, but it would be the audience losing their favorite character. Arya went through the Seven Hells to reclaim that sword from Polliver. To give it up would be to abandon her childhood along with her vengeance, and to take one more Stark away from us. Hence, agony giving way to a mild, bitterly wistful ecstasy for when Arya does not throw the blade in the drink; she instead hides it. Buried beneath the House of Black and White is the real Arya Stark. Whatever this girl who would have no name becomes, eventually Arya’s face will return, and Needle is waiting. On that day, we may with any luck see Walder Frey’s fate sealed.
Finally, the hour concluded with another crossover of sorts when Tyrion came back into the fold as a major character in Essos, if only to become a bargaining chip.
Tyrion Lannister, tired of Varys’ company, finds Volantis to be a strange land of red priestesses that worship Daenerys Targaryen like the Second Coming of a messiah. Giving the inevitable clash of East and West for when Dany crosses the Narrow Sea, suddenly the off-screen story of the Last Targaryen is contextualized with an air of Armageddon in this hour. Not that this stops Tyrion from having his typical witticisms, my favorite of which is “It’s even better luck to suck a dwarf’s cock.”
However, our still bearded and self-pitying Tyrion is neither over the deaths of Shae or Tywin since he cannot even stomach the idea of making love to a prostitute. Instead, he can only semi-compliment her while all but announcing to a tavern that he has been inside a castle and met a queen (though not necessarily of the silver variety who the brothel has capitalized on to humorous effect).
Forgetting that Cersei has put a monumental bounty on his head, Tyrion essentially screams his heritage. Luckily, the only person besides Varys who noticed is our final crossover for the night, Ser Jorah Mormont. And Jorah has interest in only one queen—the kind that might pardon him for his indiscretions if he brings her the son of a Lannister patriarch that had her aunt and cousins raped and murdered.
It’s a terrific cliffhanger straight out of the book, but any sense of fear that he is going to Cersei is immediately expunged since viewers know that it is obviously Jorah that took Tyrion hostage. Nonetheless, how will Jorah take Tyrion to Daenerys, and how would she react to seeing either man in her city of Meereen?
It is a curious question, not least of all because if you noticed, we did not visit Meereen once tonight. Going into season five, I was curious if Meereen would be the deadweight that it was in A Dance with Dragons, and while I still do not have an answer, I think it’s safe to note that the series flows so much better when we do not spend time on Dany struggling with variations of the same problem every week in Meereen. Yes, Dany needs to learn how to govern. Yet, in a city that is so far from the Westerosi plotlines, or the medieval tropes that clearly fascinated George R.R. Martin more than the vaguely Middle Eastern and oriental flavorings of Essos, it still translates to a narrative anchor around both the novels and the series.
By completely cutting out Meeren, “High Sparrow” moved with the swiftness of Longclaw through Lord Janos’ trachea. Every storyline popped with excitement: Sansa meeting her supposedly future father-in-law with a smirk that barely hid murderous rage; Arya hanging on to Needle; Margaery and Cersei entering into a Dynasty like rivalry; and Jon Snow proving he is his father’s son where it counts on the chopping block.
Going forward, inevitably we have to return to Meereen. Hopefully, the tweaks being made there will be as welcomed as a Stark in Winterfell. But for now, may the “High Sparrow” be truly praised, because this episode was bloody divine.
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